Friday, November 19, 2004

Labor & the GOP

Organized labor has numerous political problems; declining membership and weakness in the South and West are only two. But one of its most striking is the poisonous relationship between the AFL-CIO and the Republican Party. While organized labor has been close to the Democratic Party since the New Deal, it used to have a lot more allies in the GOP than it does now.

Had the GOP taken full control of Congress a generation ago, AFL-CIO boss George Meany would have been confronted by Senate Majority Leader Hugh Scott (PA) and Speaker of the House Gerald Ford (MI). While neither one would have been Meany's ideal, they both were men with whom he could deal. He got along well enough with Richard Nixon as president, and Nelson Rockefeller (who could easily have become president in 1968) was a long-time pal. Those were the days when the AFL-CIO was dominated by the building trades -- hawkish, culturally conservative, private-sector, and more accustomed to dealmaking than confrontation -- and the Republican Party was led by moderates and pragmatic conservatives from the Frost Belt.

Today, the AFL-CIO is led by left-liberals from the public-sector and service-industry unions and the GOP is controlled by Sun Belt conservative ideologues. Neither group is disposed to bargain with the other.

The growing divide between unions and the GOP is illustrated by the change in the people Republican presidents have appointed as Secretaries of Labor. Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford mostly picked either labor relations specialists (James Mitchell [Eisenhower], George Shultz and James Hodgson [Nixon] and John Dunlop [Ford]) or representatives of the building trades (Martin Durkin [Eisenhower] and Peter Brennan [Nixon]). Nobody was going to confuse these men with Walter Reuther. But at least the GOP still thought it was important to get along with the less ideological parts of the union movement. But since 1981, GOP Secretaries of Labor have tended to be either Republican pols with no particular ties to unions (e.g., Bill Brock, Elizabeth Dole) or now someone openly antagonistic to them (Elaine Chao).

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